August 22, 2013 at 7:40 PM
In the final moments of her first violin lesson, our daughter's teacher hands us a flyer advertising the Suzuki Talent Education World Tour. On the front is photo of mop-haired tots in shorts and ankles socks playing miniature violins.
“It’s important that your kids go to this concert,” she tells us. At the moment, we are a little shellshocked. The intro session consisted of instructions on how to properly take the violin out of its case and how to bow before the instructor. That’s it. This syllabus was clearly a disappointment for our daughter, who had somehow been under the impression that she would leave her first lesson playing like Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street. A highly verbal five-year-old, Lauren had chattered nonstop throughout the lesson, asking distracting questions, which the teacher deflected in professionally chilly manner. Our two-year-old, Madeline, whom we’d been instructed to bring along to the lesson because it’s good to involve the whole family, is by now close to meltdown. I have a sense that this violin-playing adventure won’t end well. As my husband and I edge towards the door, I glance at the information printed on the brochure.
“It’s tomorrow night,” I blurt, suppressing the urge to point out that 8 PM is a weird time for a children’s concert.
“Your children need to hear the Suzuki Talent kids in person,” the teacher repeats firmly. “It’s very important.”
Okay, okay. I’d signed us on for this journey. We might as well give it our best. Maybe Lauren would be inspired if she saw little kids she could identify with playing Twinkle on a big stage. When we get home from the lesson, I call about tickets. The only spot where our family can sit together is a Balcony Box—expensive, and no discount for children. I buy four seats.
The following evening, our kids are a little dazed but excited to be out so late, and in their favorite dresses. When we arrive at the gilded opera hall, however, we understand at once that this is not a children’s concert. Except for a few families with older kids, the audience is mostly silver-haired. As we take our places, the two women sharing our six-seat box exchanged glances.
“I hope they’re well-behaved,” one says. Nervously, I assure them that our kids have been to lots of Saturday afternoon children’s concerts. “They love music,” I say weakly, but the women do not look convinced.
The recital turns out to be a far cry from the Book 1 Suzuki David Nadien CD we’ve been instructed to listen to 24/7. There are no cherubic preschoolers playing Twinkle. Years later, I will not recall exact details of the program itself, but I’ll remember well my puzzled feeling at hearing Schubert Piano trios (or whatever), performed by children who seemed quite grown-up from my perspective as the mother of preschoolers (that is, they were probably ten or eleven.) These were not full-out prodigies, not young Joshuas, Hilaries, or Sarahs. They were bright, hard-working, technically accomplished children.
It’s a polished performance. I watch with fascination, not because it’s a freak-show demonstration of precocity, but because I am surprised that a paying audience has assembled for this concert in a city where it is possible to hear world-class artists almost any day of the week. I can’t wrap my head around why so many people would want to hear a sterile recitation by ten-year-olds when they can hear mature performances of the same repertoire by, say, the Beaux Arts Trio, next month. Maybe I just don’t get it.
In the middle of the slow movement, Lauren slides to her feet, and the seat of her chair springs up behind her with a loud choinggg! sound. The women beside us look appalled. My kids are now swaying to the music. The two-year-old twirls in her party dress. It’s clear that my daughters are not identifying with the kids on Suzuki Talent Education Tour. They are not even paying attention to the remote performance taking place on the far-away stage down below. Their eyes are on the enormous sparkling crystal chandelier hanging above the audience. They are responding, purely and viscerally, to the music itself and the shared experience in the room. They are having a great time. By contrast, my husband and I sit tense, hyper-conscious of the irritated women who share our Balcony Box. We count the minutes until intermission, when we will can swoop up our kids and make a graceful exit.
Two days later, on a bright Saturday morning, we venture back to the Suzuki school for our first Pre-Twinkle Group Class on the campus of a local church. Buoyed by the prospect of meeting other parents who can give me some insider lowdown, or perhaps a reality check, I prowl the hallways of the church daycare with our two-year-old while my husband attends the Pre-Twinkle group with Lauren. Suddenly I hear a hideous noise coming from a Sunday school classroom along the hallway. Inside, a dozen small children with miniature instruments are playing a folksong, comically out of tune. I’ve never heard anything like it in all my life. I stifle a giggle. As I peer through the window, a mom whom I recognize from the registration table strolls up the hallway, smiling. I smile back, relieved to share the joke.
But she doesn’t think the sound is hilarious. “That’s Michele’s Rep I class,” she tells me. “Aren’t they amazing?”
The two-year-old on my hip leans forward and presses a chubby finger on the glass. I have no idea how to answer her, so I only say, “Yes.”
The woman stands alongside me at the window.
“That’s D.J.,” she says, after a minute, pointing to one of the kids inside. “Last year, he could hardly hold still for a minute—his mom was ready to give up—and now look at him, he’s playing ‘O Come, Little Children.’”
I have a lot to learn. In the next several years of my re-education, I will slowly disassemble my rigid assumptions about art. I will puzzle over the curious phrase “talent education,” and discover what it feels like to be the parent of a child who turns out to be ordinary in a particular context, and of a child who turns out to be exceptional, and of an exceptional child who, like a chameleon, turns ordinary, when re-contextualized against an extraordinary backdrop. I will learn to appreciate the pleasure of struggle and the joy of small accomplishments. I will stop being such an uptight snob. I will learn that taste is a continuum; that elitism poisons the arts; and that art has a larger mission than I had ever imagined. In other words, everything I sensed instinctively about myself and my own place in the world will be revealed to me in plain sight, like a long-playing, ever-unfolding allegory.
What adventures you can have, if you grow along with your kids and let their interests also enrich your life.
I don't think I've ever met anyone else with that reaction. Most people I know are generally appalled, or at best, amused, by the way student string group performances sound. I had a strange argument once with a former boyfriend who made what he thought was an off-hand comment about how elementary school music teachers must suffer so much because they have to listen to that every day. I couldn't understand why he was being so rude and insulting, and he couldn't understand why I felt that way and thought I was the one being rude.
My process of learning to play the violin has been one of trying to understand that discrepancy. Now that my ear has become more discriminating, I've gained a great deal--adult professionals no longer all sound alike to me, for example--but I also feel sometimes like I've lost something, namely the ability to just listen openly, without prejudice and value judgments. I still enjoy kids' recitals and concerts, though. I can totally understand why people would go to that kids' concert rather than hear the same piece played by adult professionals. Maybe it's something about hearing it as though you are hearing it for the first time, through a child's ears, without the full force of history and tradition weighing you down.
Speaking as a parent, I discover the same hidden, naïve, unfolding folly and hypocrisy in me, too.
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